When the Department of Justice began a search for a new special master to lead its beleaguered September 11th Victim Compensation Fund in 2016, the fund was facing long delays in processing claims, leading some to charge it was failing to meet its obligations to those harmed by the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the terrorism-related plane crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
So the department turned to Rupa Bhattacharyya, a seasoned veteran in the unique niche of government compensation funds, to address the problems. The results of her leadership have been remarkable, with claim processing times dropping from the often three-plus years wait in 2016 to less than a year on average today. In addition, the overall number of claims processed and money paid out has surged.
Before her arrival, the fund had decided about 9,000 claims and paid out $1.8 billion between 2011 and 2016. As of early this year, the fund had processed an additional 35,000 claims and paid another $7.7 billion in compensation. An earlier 9/11 fund, in operation from 2001 to 2004, awarded about $7 billion to 5,560 claimants.
“If you’re a 9/11 responder and you’ve got cancer and are now disabled, being able to get compensation for that in a timely manner means the law is fulfilled,” said Ben Chevat, executive director of 9/11 Health Watch and a former chief of staff for New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney. “That was the whole goal.”
Bhattacharyya was unusually qualified to step into the special master role, having spent many years overseeing compensation funds at the DOJ.
She previously oversaw the Radiation Exposure Fund that compensated those people who were harmed at nuclear test sites in the American West during the 1950s and 1960s. She also oversaw a fund created in the 1980s to compensate the families of children harmed by vaccines, usually as a result of severe allergic reactions. Although the number affected by these illnesses was small, the impact the program had on families was significant.
Jennifer Ricketts, a branch director in DOJ’s civil division, said Bhattacharyya “did a terrific job making sure those two funds had the resources they needed. There is almost no one who can navigate that better than Rupa.”
“Rupa has been a tenacious leader, surmounting hefty and nuanced legal requirements with compassion for victims and their families,” said Lee Lofthus, an assistant attorney general. “Her work touches so many people in such an emotional way.”
In addition to her time heading the compensation funds, Bhattacharyya has served as a trial litigator in the Justice Department’s Civil Division, and as a deputy assistant general counsel for international affairs at the Department of the Treasury.
Almost immediately after joining the Sept. 11th victim’s fund six years ago, Bhattacharyya faced a second crisis alongside its struggle to pay claims in a timely fashion: the fund was running out of money. With claims still coming in at a rapid clip and the funds dwindling, she was forced to make the difficult decision to trim benefit payouts.
“We had a claimant population that was very unhappy and had been waiting a very long time, and so we needed to make changes immediately,” Bhattacharyya said.
That decision, along with congressional testimony from Bhattacharyya, first responders who were sickened by the toxic chemicals at Ground Zero and celebrities such as Jon Stewart, helped prod Congress to shore up the fund.
Because health conditions caused by exposure to asbestos and other toxins at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville could take decades to appear, Congress not only authorized more funds to support the claims, but a longer time horizon for victims and their families to submit claims.
The fund is now authorized to process claims through the year 2090. This is vital as there are now more people who have died as a result of 9/11-related conditions than the nearly 4,000 who were killed in the attacks themselves. The claims continue to flow in from every state and every congressional district in the nation since people affected by the attacks have relocated, according to the DOJ.
Bhattacharyya, who recently retired from federal service, takes inspiration for her work and draws passion for public service from her own experience as a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from India.
“I’ve always been aware that the opportunities I have here, I might not have had in India,” she said. “So working in the federal government was something that I really wanted to do.”
Colleagues laud her unique skills and long experience in leading compensation funds as a major asset in rebuilding trust between the government and those who look to these programs for the compensation they deserve.
“I can’t tell you the number of people involved in this program who have made comments about how much they appreciate everything that Rupa has done to advance the cause of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund,” said Jody Hunt, a former assistant attorney general.
“These victims not only got sick through no fault of their own, but got sick because they did exactly what the government asked them to do. Responders and police officers and firefighters went into that site because they were told we’re going to rebuild New York. The survivors and the people who lived or went to school or shopped in the area, they were told to live their lives,” Bhattacharyya said. “To be in a position to help them is something I’m very proud of.”